Al was surprised to admit it felt incredibly good to talk with Anla. It wasn’t like when he spoke with Aggie; she paid attention to him, asked him questions, and didn’t interrupt nor interject with some tangential story. He had spoken for hours, both about himself and of Arvonne, even a little about Amandorlam and the work he did. And she was still there when they felt the train slow and finally stop.
He stuffed his forgotten book into his gigantic knapsack and handed Anla hers. “If you’re interested to know more about Arvonne or the Alscaines, I’m always available to talk.”
“I’d like that, Al,” she said and stepped out into the hallway. Several people passed by and he joined the line to the carriage as soon as he could. He saw Anla standing next to Raulin, who met his gaze when he entered.
“I want you to explain yourself.”
In the minutes Anla had been near Raulin, had she told him what they had talked about, even in that little time? He had asked her not to. Was his trust in her misplaced. He looked to her, but she wasn’t looking at either of them.
Raulin drew his arm out, gesturing to the window. Al blinked and looked outside to see that everything was blanketed in white. “You said, and I quote ‘it’s far too early for snow’. And what do we have on our arrival? A foot of snow. A foot. Now I have to buy another coat because I sold back the other one because I had on your authority that there was no way I would need it. ‘Comfortable’, you said.”
“What, do you want me to pay for your coat?”
Raulin sighed. “Wizard, I am having a lark at your expense. I’m jesting with you. It’s not a big problem. Try not to be so serious about these things.”
“Snow!” Telbarisk said as he ventured towards the group. “Did you see outside, Raulin?”
“Yes, in fact I did. Now, Wizard, would you like to escort us to a second-hand store so that I may purchase some items? Again.”
The train station was in the northwestern part of the city, near Scarinjou. Not only did Al not want to linger in one of the city’s worst places, he didn’t even want to ask directions from one of its residents. He remembered his escape from the spell-trackers hunting him for the inkwell, running to Scarinjou in the rain, tripping over uneven paver stones, and having to deal with the unsavory people who mocked him from under the eaves and the doorways. He’d rather not have to deal with them again.
He walked what he felt was south, leading the group past crumbled walls, broken and boarded windows, and piles of snow no one cared to move. Some of the streets seemed familiar, so he turned down those. After the third dead-end, Raulin finally spoke up.
“Wizard, I don’t usually mind the scenic route, but I fear I can no longer feel my nose, ears, nor my sense of purpose.”
“I’m getting us out of Scarinjou,” he snapped.
“Is examining the different architectual stylings of alleyways part of the journey?”
They took a few more steps, then Raulin softened his tone. “Okay, so you’re lost. I didn’t realize you didn’t know this part of your city. My fault. Let me ask someone…”
“Don’t,” he said, turning around. “I have this, all right? I will get us to where we need to go.”
Raulin met Anla’s gaze for a moment, then said, “You know, this place looks familiar.”
“I’m not that lost!”
“No, no, I mean the neighborhood reminds me of somewhere I’ve been. Hmm.” He clicked his tongue for a few moments. “Ah, yes. Cougriqest. Nasty little neighborhood in Eri Ranvel. Not the best place to travel, unless you feel like donating to the poor without your consent.”
“Eri Ranvel has bad parts?” he asked, surprised.
“Oh, yes, all cities have bad parts, even the nice ones, even the capitals. The destitute and dissolute need their places to trade and take.”
“Why didn’t the Arvonnese just wipe out that part, then? Kick everyone out, tear down the buildings, make something nicer…”
Raulin walked over to the wall and leaned against it. “Because even the bad neighborhoods serve a purpose, Wizard. It’s not just thugs waiting to get hired, pockets getting picked, and people getting shanked for their coin. This is the place where someone with nothing can arrive and find a cheap room for rent and work that might be hard and dirty, but will pay the bills. This is a place of sympathy, of privacy, a place where no one cares if they’re supposed to add ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’ or ‘.rd’ in front of your name. Everyone is equal.”
He jerked his head to his right, which was a second-hand clothes store. “It’s also a place where people can sell whatever they want and have it bought without anyone passing judgment. Mind if we go in?”
“No,” Al said quietly and followed him inside.
One wool coat and a pair of fur lined gloves with only slight rot later and they were back out on the streets. Raulin let Al lead them and didn’t say another word.
Al felt a lot more at ease. He knew enough to move them out of Scarinjou and could walk with more confidence to a district he was familiar with. Scarinjou was not too far from Adinton’s, which was next to both Clearhill and Opten Square. Both were neighborhoods with reputations that made Al feel like they wouldn’t be paying too much, but wouldn’t have to worry about their items being hocked by the innkeeper.
While they unpacked, Raulin knocked on the door of Al and Anla. “I don’t suppose you know of a great restaurant nearby that serves something warm, like chowder you’d find in Baradan?”
Al snorted. “No one has chowder like Baradan. Um, there are a few that might have soup, but serve something else as the specialty.”
“Let’s go,” Raulin said. “My treat.”
They were sitting at a corner table in a smoke-filled room, eating their soups, when Al heard something familiar. His sense of hearing was once again heightened by the Unease without him remembering he had entered it. He looked around for a few moments, wondering what it was that had drawn his attention, then went back to listening to the group’s conversation.
“Why don’t they put it in the food?” Tel asked.
“They do, to some extent, but some people like a little more salt, pepper, or sorghum on their food than others.”
Tel dashed some pepper in his hand, then inhaled deeply. His face twisted and he began to sneeze and rub his nose.
Raulin laughed. “I didn’t think you were going to smell it! Taste a little, see if you like it, then put a little in your soup.”
“It’s spicy,” he said. “It makes my mouth warm.”
“…like clear water on a summer’s day. I could stare into them forever,” Al heard amongst other snippets of conversation. He looked up and around again and spotted a young woman in a nice dress seated across from a larger man. He was holding her hands and she was looking at him coquettishly, her eyes flickering up and down and her teeth biting her bottom lip.
There was something familiar about the man, but he didn’t want to interrupt both their date and his own group’s meal. So, when everyone was finished with their roast beef and grilled vegetables, he made an excuse to linger around the restaurant. “I wanted to do a little shopping,” he told Raulin. “I need to look into some new gloves and a belt.”
“You should have bought them at the shop. Unless you think this freak storm is a sign of the times, you won’t need nice gloves for the rest of the year.”
“Yeah, I wasn’t thinking.”
“All right. I’ll see you later. I may have some questions for you about the city, if you don’t mind me asking.”
The three took off for their hotel and Al waited outside. He had to move when he felt several drops of melt from the awning tap his shoulder. As he stood closer to the road, he could feel the cold rising from the snow, the air still moist and warm despite the weather. This would all be gone in a day or two, when the warm temperatures would return.
“…lot of pressure from my boss, but I can handle it. I’ll be up for a promotion soon. It’ll be quite different once I’m partner.”
The speaker, the same man from inside the restaurant, stepped out ahead of the well-dressed woman. Al straightened and turned to face him. “Aggie?”
The man stopped, shielding his eyes to see better beyond the light from the restaurant. “Al?”
“Hi,” he said, not sure how to continue the conversation. He felt a little self-conscious, interrupting Aggie’s date, being stared at quizzically by the woman. But, Aggie solved that as he walked to Al and scooped him into a bear hug.
“What are you doing here? I heard you skipped town! Ember was not happy,” he said, whispering the last part.
“I…I did. But, I’m back for a few days.”
“Great!” He turned back to look at his date. “I’m busy tonight. Do you want to meet up for drinks tomorrow?”
“Sounds good! I have a lot to tell you about.”
“Same here,” Aggie said, clapping him on the back. “Meet you at the Commons at seven.”